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Tanning Safely, Sans the Sun

Bronze—Don’t Burn—With Self-Tanning Lotions by Margery Stein

As Woody Allen once said, “I don’t tan. I stroke.” Despite that fact, and my fair, freckled skin, I became a solar worshipper early on. My Memorial Day ritual was the same throughout my teens: drive to nearby Jones Beach, on Long Island, at 10 a.m. with my pals in tow; lie on a blanket in my bathing suit, my trusty sun visor under my chin; fall asleep; awake at 2 or 3 p.m.; arrive home with a sunburn so fierce that my father, a doctor, put me in a bath laced with Epsom salts and then sent me to bed coated in cortisone cream. “Don’t you ever learn?” he would thunder at me in exasperation. Indeed, I have learned what I didn’t know then about sun damage, and it’s an important lesson. “There are two types of rays that we’re most concerned about: UVA and UVB rays,” says Meryl Blecker Joerg, M.D., an attending physician at Mount Sinai Hospital and member of the Advanced Dermatology Center for Laser and Cosmetic Surgery. “UVA rays go deeper and cause early aging of the skin. Basically, the rays break down collagen, which makes the skin plump, and elastin, which gives the skin elasticity. When you lose elastin, your skin sags more. Losing both elastin and collagen can lead to premature aging. UVB rays cause DNA damage, which can lead to skin cancer.” So getting brown au naturel is a very bad idea. “We really have to educate people that no sun tan is a safe tan, even if you’re wearing sunscreen,” notes Dr. Joerg. “If you’re in the sun, you’re getting some of its damaging rays.” If you want to look like a bronze goddess, the healthiest way is to fake it. “Self-tanning products are the safest way to go,” says Dr. Joerg. The magic bullet in self-tanners is “a chemical called dihydroxyacetone, which binds to the proteins in the top layer of our skin, temporarily tinting it so it looks tan. It doesn’t cause UVA or UVB damage, and it lasts six or seven days. As your skin regenerates, the skin cells shed and the color comes off.” Is it safe to keep reusing a self-tanner? “Yes, but if you use it very frequently, your skin will get slightly darker for the duration of the product,” Dr. Joerg notes. “When you stop using it, the color slowly fades away. It will not permanently darken your skin.” A grab-bag of tanning hybrids has invaded the market, from spray-on tans and airbrush kits to creams and rub-on products like Tan Towels, which applies color with a body wipe that sets in seconds. “These all work the same way,” observes Dr. Joerg. “They’re simply different methods of applying the product.” The creams are more moisturizing, she notes—which is beneficial for aging skin—“while the towelettes are disposable and rub on quickly. Spray bottles are also a fast and easy way to go. After spraying, you rub the product around with your hand to make sure it’s evenly distributed.” But, Dr. Joerg cautions, “Don’t forget to wash your palms afterwards, because otherwise they’ll look darker than the rest of your skin.” As for particular brands, one of Dr. Joerg’s personal favorites is Clarins Self Tanning Gel, $34. “It gives a very natural tan and is not smelly like some tanners, plus it’s very moisturizing.” Another product on Dr. Joerg’s hit list for mature skin is Lancôme’s Flash Bronzer Anti-Age, $40. “It’s a little tinted so you can see it when you put it on; it has an SPF [Sun Protective Factor] of 15, and it contains Vitamin E, which is a good antioxidant.” (According to, antioxidants help fight fine lines and wrinkles, so they are useful anti-aging agents.) Dr. Joerg also recommends L’Oréal Sublime Bronze™ Tinted Self-Tanning Lotion Medium Natural Tan, which contains Vitamin E and promises to be two shades darker than your natural skin tone. “This is a great tinted moisturizer with antioxidants,” she notes. “I would recommend putting a sunscreen on top of it.” A less expensive self-tanner that is sold at most large pharmacies for $8 to $10 and gets her thumbs-up is Jergens Natural Glow & Protect Daily Moisturizer, with a 20 SPF. Some tanners are touted as paraben-free, or as containing botanicals or natural instant bronzers such as coffee bean extracts, which are also antioxidants. Explains Dr. Joerg, “Parabens are a group of compounds widely used as antimicrobial preservatives in food, pharmaceutical, and cosmetics products. Paraben-free products are preferable, because parabens are estrogen mimickers and may increase the risk of breast cancer.” Botanicals, she notes, include creams and moisturizers that are plant derived, containing aloe vera, chamomile or green tea. “Green tea is a very good antioxidant.” To create a state-of-the-art fake tan, Dr. Joerg recommends this ritual: “After you come out of the shower, apply a layer of moisturizing lotion like Cetaphil, Purpose Dual Treatment Moisture Lotion, or CeraVe. I especially recommend Neutrogena Healthy Defense Daily Moisturizer SPF 50 with Helioplex for everyday use ($3 to $11). What the lotion does is not only moisturize the skin, but also hydrate areas of dead skin and thicker and dryer skin, like around the elbows and hands. Then you put the self-tanner on top of that. If you put it on without moisturizing first, you get darker patches over dryer skin.” Above all, stay away from tanning salons. The color you get there, warns Dr. Joerg, “comes from UVA and UVB rays,” just like those in the great outdoors. That’s as dangerous as lying on the sand, as this post-teen—now a major sun shunner—can firmly testify.

Margery Stein, a former editor at The New York Times and at several national magazines, writes about travel, health, business, and lifestyle issues for major consumer publications. She also consults, edits, and provides content for a range of online sites.

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